Police have arrested three men in connection with the killing of a deputy police chief in Ratanakkiri province, officials said Thursday.
Provincial Deputy police Chief Hor Ang said the three men are associates of a man named Ny who is believed to have shot Bokeo district Deputy police Chief Buth Sophat, though the gunman is still at large.
Before he was killed, Buth Sophat was investigating reports that an ethnic minority leader was being hunted for assassination.
“[The suspects] are bad people, but they deny involvement with the killing,” Hor Ang said. “But they have confessed they committed many crimes and they had weapons and they usually have contact with the suspect who is at large.”
Bin Boeun, 32, and Chhun Eisan, 30, were arrested in Banlung on Wednesday while Phut Tay, 19, was arrested in Bokeo town on Thursday, the deputy chief said.
Hor Ang said one AK-47 owned by the group was seized while a second rifle was still missing and believed to have been taken by the gunman.
“The investigation is still going on, and we promise to solve this case,” he said.
On Friday and Saturday, two unidentified men visited Highlander Association President Dam Chanthy’s farm in Bokeo district while she was away and allegedly said they had been hired to kill her.
Buth Sophat was killed Sunday afternoon when police tried to question a man named Ny, who police say shot Buth Sophat and fled the scene.
Dam Chanthy, who believes she was targeted for assassination because of her work in educating villagers about their land rights, said she is in hiding and still fears for her life.
“I am still concerned about my safety,” she said Thursday. “I’m in hiding today.”
On Thursday morning, Dam Chanthy said, two unidentified men went to a seminar being conducted by the Highlander Association and asked for her and her assistant. When they were told neither was present, the two men rode off on a motorbike.
In recent months, numerous activists and village representatives who have spoken out and stood up for their rights in various land disputes in the country have been threatened, attacked and killed.
Five villagers in Poipet were shot dead by police and military police in March while being evicted from a six-hectare plot of land.
Eight people protesting against the massive Pheapimex concession in Pursat province were injured when a grenade was thrown into their group in November.
And villagers and NGOs have been threatened for speaking out against land concessions that are affecting them.
International donors have increasingly turned their attention to land disputes and natural resource management, primarily because of the potential for violence and rights violations.
Dam Chanthy said she had been threatened and told to stop her activities by people-including provincial authorities-before.
“I believe the case is involved with the land issues in Bokeo district where huge amounts of land are being sold to rich and powerful people,” she said. “I had tried to educate people to stop selling the land so maybe the buyers were not happy with me.”
Kuch Veng, a farmer who has represented villagers against Pheapimex, said he was questioned and four men with guns tried to draw him out of his house one night in November.
“They pretended to steal my cows to persuade me to come down from the house but I wouldn’t go,” he said Thursday. “There were also repeated threats from authorities against our plans to protest against land concession to the company. They also threatened us, saying: ‘Now you can live happily, why do you want to protest? Maybe you want to die.’”
In a report published in December, rights group Licadho documented 42 cases of threats-including attacks and killings-against rights workers and community representatives last year.
Thun Saray, president of rights group Adhoc, said threats to rights workers and the government’s failure to deal with those responsible is one of the biggest obstacles for promoting equality and democracy in the country.
“There has to be an effort to punish them,” he said.
He said outspoken villagers and community leaders are often targeted as a way to discourage, intimidate and scare off others, and while threats of physical violence continue, a new trend of threatening to arrest and imprison those who are the most outspoken has emerged.
“Now they use the court system,” he said. “I see that more and more. Because if they kill them, then there is international pressure and bad public perception.”
Thun Saray said the trend follows that those responsible try to intimidate communities and NGOs and if that doesn’t work, then they try to use the courts. Violence is often used as a last resort.
But government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said Thursday that villagers and NGO workers often claim to be targets of intimidation and threats for money.
“Everywhere the people try to be victims for more money,” he said, adding the government has a duty to protect human rights workers and others who stand up for themselves, a duty it takes seriously. “How many have been killed? None.”
He did not respond to allegations that the court system was being used to strike back at outspoken villagers and NGOs.
Om Yentieng, the head of the government’s human rights committee, and Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said they were too busy to comment Thursday.